More Hawaii children are at risk of going hungry than ever before, new federal data shows.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Hawaii’s hunger rates were lower than national averages. Today, the Aloha State’s situation is worse than national levels — a striking shift, according to local researchers.

The data, collected via the U.S. Census Bureau’s “Household Pulse Survey,” is the topic of a new report from the University of Hawaii which found nearly half of Hawaii families with children reported struggling to pay for meals as of March.

“The rates were roughly in the 10% ball park pre-COVID, and they’re close to 50% currently,” said Jack Barile, the interim director of the University of Hawaii Manoa’s Social Science Research Institute. “The majority of people facing food insecurity now are facing it for the first time or in recent history, so that’s kind of startling.”

Childhood hunger has become more prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hawaii island nonprofit huiMAU saw the need and started a community pantry and expanded its culturally based agricultural and educational programs for children and their families. Courtesy: huiMAU

The pandemic’s effect on children and their families has manifested in different ways.

On the one hand, the growth in need for meals has spurred new collective action among community groups to meet kids where they are and to ensure they’re getting fed. New programming could pave the way for long-term resilience.

On the other hand, as agencies race to meet emergency needs, some advocates and policy experts worry COVID-19 has killed the momentum of locally-sourced food initiatives for children at schools. Further complicating their efforts to reach children is Hawaii’s uneven learning environment, as some kids stay home while others return to classrooms in person.

The surge in food insecurity is driven by Hawaii’s record unemployment rates, which persisted as the highest in the nation as of February. About three-quarters of families that said they struggled to pay for food during the U.S. Census interviews reported losing income during the pandemic.

The consequences of Hawaii’s worsening food insecurity will likely have a lasting impact on children’s health that could take years to measure. According to the report, Hawaii’s hunger trends mirror increasing rates of anxiety and depression in the state, and those interviewed who were having trouble affording food for the first time said it was affecting their mental health.

Local experts worry that families who never qualified for assistance before are missing out on benefits because they are not familiar with how to navigate the system. Of the families that reported the most struggle to afford food, only about a fifth of them were signed up for financial assistance.

School Meals Upended

One of the biggest efforts to address childhood hunger is the Department of Education’s free or discounted school lunch program, but the pandemic has been challenging for the program. Schools had to pivot to reach students who opted to learn from home.

The Hawaii DOE set up 203 “Grab-and-Go” school meal distribution sites last spring and will continue to operate them until the end of the current school year. The meals are free for anyone under 18 years old regardless of whether they were enrolled in the free or reduced-price lunch program or at a public school.

When the pandemic hit, the Department of Education had to pivot and began offering drive-thru school meal pickups. But not everyone has the means to get to food distribution sites while they are open. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Anna Pruitt, the lead author of the UH report, said that people in rural communities faced a lot of barriers getting to food distribution sites. Some public bus routes were suspended. Other events were drive-thru only, which limited it to families with cars.

There are other ways the state has tried to make sure kids receive their typical free school meal, even if they stay at home and attend class online.

The Hawaii Department of Human Services reports providing approximately $61 million worth of food assistance to more than 97,000 eligible students during the pandemic to date.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as SNAP, a federally funded relief program administered by the Hawaii Department of Human Services, expanded eligibility criteria and now assists more than 200,000 Hawaii residents compared to an average of 150,000 to 155,000 people in prior years, according to Brian Donohoe, an administrator at the Department of Human Services.

“We suspect the need will continue, if not grow,” Donohoe said.

The state also launched a temporary Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program that sends debit cards to eligible families in their child’s name to make up for possible loss of school-provided meals.

The extension of federal funding relief has been crucial for keiki, says Daniela Spoto, the anti-hunger initiatives director at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice. But getting the P-EBT program going was hard, because it required the Department of Education and Department of Human Services to distinguish which children were attending class in person and who opted for virtual learning, she said.  

“Every state had to submit a plan to the federal government to outline how they were going to verify that kids not only had been out of school for five consecutive days, but also how they were going to verify if they were on free or reduced price meals,” she said.

Portrait of Director of Anti-Hunger Initiatives, Daniela Spoto.
Daniela Spoto, director of anti-hunger initiatives at Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice, said having a single statewide school district actually put Hawaii at an advantage to set up food distribution sites. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The extra planning and federal paperwork required of the DOE delayed the rollout of the third round of benefits, she said. As a result, P-EBT card benefits families qualified for in October won’t be distributed until April 20.

Payments are being issued retroactively. Students at schools with hybrid learning programs may receive a benefit of up to $72 per month, while students who are doing distance learning full time may receive up to $143 per month. Students at schools that have full time in-person learning programs are not eligible for the P-EBT program.

Another challenge, researchers say, is making sure food assistance is reaching the right people. Spoto, Pruitt and Barile said more local studies are needed to design culturally and community appropriate solutions.

The data provided by the U.S. Census survey did not include a comprehensive racial demographic breakdown showing how many Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander families are in need.

“We need to do more local research into this so that we can make sure that we’re understanding the prevalence and racial and ethnic disparities,” said Pruitt.    

Shifting To Meet The Need

The nonprofit Hui Mālama i ke Ala ʻŪlili, or huiMAU, has been focused on restoring land that was used to cultivate sugar cane to grow Hawaiian staples such as kalo, or taro, and ulu, or breadfruit.

Now it’s opened a community pantry that sources local produce and ingredients for the surrounding community of Hamakua on Hawaii island, population 1,300.

Since the pandemic began, the organization has had great success working with local farmers who otherwise catered to the tourism industry, says Executive Director No‘eau Peralto.

“We didn’t realize how much was being grown right here by our people because we didn’t necessarily see it in our stores,” said Peralto.

With philanthropic funding and community donations, huiMAU has managed to pay farmers market rate for their produce and has kept those relationships going — even as the tourism industry reopens and hotel restaurants pose competition.

As part of its after school programming, huiMAU now sends a locally sourced box of food home with kids for their families once a week. It’s an effort they hope to keep going.

“We’re trying to make it as safe and welcome and loving of a space as possible and meeting people where they’re at just to make sure everybody is fed,” he said. 

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